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Reparations for slavery is an issue that periodically resurfaces on the Hill, and this week it reared its head yet again.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing to determine whether or not Congress should bother exploring possible plans for slavery reparations Wednesday. Predictably so, that lead to at least one Republican speaking, so there’s at least one scathing commentary floating around about what that evil white man had to say.

Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson was the target of venom for Zak Cheney-Rice at New York Mag, and admittedly, it may have been a little deserved. Sorry, but no matter how much anyone might want to wish it otherwise, a white man quoting Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hearing of this kind really is tone deaf.

A far better option would have been to talk about the reality of the situation. It’s not out of the question for Republicans to condemn Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”, by pointing out how it has built a culture of dependence on government. That is at least a part of the problem the people who testified in this hearing were complaining about, isn’t it?

While many may try to make political hay out of this, especially on the 2020 campaign trail, the fact is that it’s very unlikely there will be real talk or consideration of a reparations plan. It’s just something that could be an impossible-to-keep campaign promise. Bluntly, we can’t afford it without adding at least ten clones of Jeff Bezos to contribute to the GDP.

Reparations must be cash?

Of course, that is assuming that “reparations” would include some kind of cash payment to millions of Americans. But, what if it meant actually trying to resolve the current ills of society that are fueling this in the first place?

Two very basic issues have plagued lower income African American communities and families for ages, and both could theoretically be addressed more than they are now. The first problem is with education. Can we have a conversation about creating a college loan forgiveness program for teachers? Set high grade point averages as a requirement for eligibility, since the goal is to get quality teachers into suffering schools. Of course, in many schools it might be necessary to also get no-nonsense administrators like the one depicted in the classic film Lean On Me. In case you didn’t know, yes that film was based on a real person’s life, so it wasn’t just a Hollywood dream. The point is that schools should have teachers who teach, not to a test, and not in between playing security guard.

The second issue is police. As a general rule, regardless of where you’re living or how rich you are, all of us are facing a similar problem in this area. Too many police officers are apparently trying to be like Robocop, when we really need more Andy Griffith. This situation is only going to get worse with time, unless we as a society do something to stop it. We need to stop teaching future police officers to approach everyone like they’re just one step away from incarceration. Assume everyone is out to get you, and you will make everyone at least want to do you harm. Thankfully, most people don’t actually act out on those impulses, but they certainly do treat many police officers with a high level of distrust. That isn’t helping. One side needs to give on this, and sadly, it really needs to be law enforcement. This is especially true in lower income areas.

Once we get law enforcement to stop being Robocop clones, we can start asking the African American community to stop teaching their kids to distrust (or disrespect) police officers. We also need to finally nail down at least one psychological test that mitigates the problem of violent and racist people getting a badge. The psychologists know what to ask, but the potential bad officers know what to answer to get past them. But, we already know how to catch people when they try to give the “right” answers on tests like this. Keep asking the same questions in different forms, repeatedly, ad nauseum. Eventually, most of the bad seeds will show their true colors out of frustration (or anger).

Also, beyond just stopping the adversarial relationship with law enforcement, we need to see more African American police officers. It’s rarely a problem of racism here. Think about it. If kids are raised to think that police officers are untrustworthy at best – the enemy at worst – why in the world would they pursue a career in law enforcement?

The bottom line is that handing out cash isn’t going to improve anything. Honestly, it will probably cause more animosity. If anyone thinks that every non-black person in the country is going to be just fine with yet another huge bill from the government, they are wrong. It would be especially upsetting because it wouldn’t address any of the underlying problems at all. It wouldn’t help improve educational opportunities. There would still be problems with crime, and law enforcement. Brutal, but true, it would probably increase racism, because such payments wouldn’t be viewed as fixing past ills once the reality of the debt and taxation sets in. Maybe it’s better to just focus on fixing the ills that are creating obstacles to success?

Image: Getty Center [Public Domain]

Liz Harrison

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